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I'm terrible at Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. I summon my Shattered Sun Clerics after the minion they were supposed to buff. I cast Hellfire after summoning my minions. I'm regularly thrashed by any player who has any clue what they're doing.
But you know? I'm having fun.
I had zero collectible card game experience before playing Hearthstone. I'm one of the greenhorns who decided to try out the game because it's free and I like other Blizzard titles. I led Thrall to victory in Warcraft 3 and helped him defeat Deathwing in World of Warcraft, so why not play a few rounds of cards with him too?
Blizzard expects a lot of players to come in with my level of experience. The game begins with a series of tutorial battles against A.I. opponents. You play through these fights as Jaina, a mage. She's one of nine playable characters, each drawing from a different pool of ability, minion and weapon cards. The characters are modeled after the base Warcraft classes. For example, Gul'dan is a warlock and Thrall is a shaman. You and your opponent take turns playing cards with the end goal of reducing their character's health to zero.
After that tutorial, I thought I had a pretty good handle on the game. My confidence was even higher after I played through the optional practice battles against the A.I. in order to unlock additional characters. I was ready to compete against other players!
I was not ready to compete against other players.
While being eviscerated by my first opponents, I learned something about collectible card games: their learning curve is rough. If you're losing, there can be many culprits:
Constructing a custom deck simply made matters worse. Blizzard tries to guide you by suggesting cards (i.e. "You need more high-level cards. Choose from one of these three.") The game doesn't do much beyond telling you to have a mix of low, mid and high-mana cards, though. They're not going to tell you how to mold your deck around a particular strategy (aggro, control, etc.). They also won't point out what cards are more efficient than others. You have to learn all this on your own.
After getting even worse with my custom deck, I decided to consult the Internet hive-mind. I did a Google search for "hearthstone warlock starter deck" and found pages and pages of results. Even now, after a few months of closed beta, there's a wealth of information out there. I quickly found that I had been overthinking my deck and could do just fine with a deck of basic, mostly low-mana cards.
Slowly, I got better. Crushing losses became respectable losses became narrow losses became SWEET JESUS I FINALLY WON. I started to get a feel for when to attack my opponent's minions, when to regroup, and when to go for the kill. I learned how to be more efficient and build a card advantage. Slowly I began swapping out parts of my newbie deck with better cards earned from booster packs.
Most importantly: I learned how to lose. I'm more amused by my clumsy losses more than anything now. Hearthstone matches are only about 10 minutes long so if you have bad luck or your experimental new deck turns out to be balls, it's not like you've wasted much time. You could be on top of the world 15 minutes later.
I came into the game wanting to be indignant about the microtransactions. If you spend a few bucks, you can buy booster packs that would've taken you hours to earn through victory. There's no denying that deep-pocketed players have a shortcut available to them. I'd imagine that most players who are fairly serious about the game will at least buy the occasional pack.
That being said, paying money doesn't guarantee you a victory. Someone who buys $50 worth of booster packs isn't necessarily going to be better than someone who paid zero money. There are only five cards per pack and never more than one card per class so it would take you a ridiculous amount of money to get every card on your class wishlist. Plus, classes match up differently against each other so your Priest-smashing deck wouldn't be quite so unbeatable against a Rogue. Oh, and you might not even draw your shiny Legendary during a match.
I wouldn't have been any better in my early hours of Hearthstone had I bought booster packs. It wouldn't have taught me how to build an effective deck or respond to unforeseen circumstances. I had to put in the time, eat the losses, and do the research in order to get ahead. The best players are the best because they know their shit, not because they outspent their opponent.
If you're worried about rich kids with legendary cards slapping you around, it's pretty easy to avoid them. The ranked play has many tiers: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Masters, and Grandmasters. You're going to be able to find players of your level of commitment.
That's not to say that the business model isn't irksome. I'm not happy with how Blizzard handles the Arena mode. In Arena, you choose one of three random character classes and then assemble a deck by choosing one card from 30 sets of three. Then, you play until you either accumulate 12 wins or 3 losses. You receive rewards (gold, booster packs, arcane dust for crafting cards) that scale according to how many wins you earned.
On the surface, this mode seems like it would be the great equalizer. Everyone's being cut off from their usual card collections and being forced to assemble new decks from potentially unfamiliar cards on the fly. You could end up with several rares or legendaries in your deck. Victory, then, depends on your ability to adapt to an unfamiliar deck and find a winning strategy.
However, the Arena costs money to enter. You need to fork over 150 gold, or $1.99. To guarantee that you simply earn back your entry fee, you need to win at least seven games. That seems to undermine the "pure test of skill" they're going for here. The mode, as a result, is more the haven of hardcore players who are willing to throw a bit of money around. For the rest of us, it's just an unused mode.
Hearthstone is whatever you want it to be. You can sink all sorts of money and time into it in a bid to become one of the world's best. Or you can spend zero money and play a few unranked games when you've got 10 minutes to kill. Thousands of you will fall somewhere in between, buying a booster pack or Arena Pass when the mood strikes you. The argument that you have to pay money to succeed - or more importantly, have fun - just isn't true.
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